Africa’s gays facing more persecution

Attacks on rise across continent

Sheila Hope Mugisha, a gay rights activist in Kampala, Uganda, didn’t leave her home for days after stones were thrown at it. Sheila Hope Mugisha, a gay rights activist in Kampala, Uganda, didn’t leave her home for days after stones were thrown at it. (Sudarsan Raghavan/ Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / December 25, 2010

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Persecution of gays is intensifying across Africa, fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments, and homophobic politicians. Gay people have been denied access to health care, detained, tortured, and even killed, human rights activists and witnesses say.

The growing tide of homophobia comes at a time when gays in Africa are expressing themselves more openly, prompting greater media attention and debates about homosexuality. The rapid growth of Islam and evangelical forms of Christianity, both espousing conservative views on family values and marriage, have persuaded many Africans that homosexuality should not be tolerated in their societies.

“It has never been harder for gays and lesbians on the continent,’’ said Monica Mbaru, Africa coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in Cape Town. “Homophobia is on the rise.’’

Fearing for their lives, many activists are in hiding or have fled their countries.

In Uganda, a bill introduced in Parliament last year would impose the death penalty for repeated same-sex relations and life imprisonment for other homosexual acts. Local newspapers are outing gays, potentially inciting the public to attack them, activists say.

A day after a newspaper article said that gays should be hanged, Sheila Hope Mugisha became a target. As the prominent gay rights activist neared her home, she said, boys from the neighborhood threw stones at the gate and chanted, “You are a homo.’’ Mugisha ran inside and locked the door. She didn’t leave for several days.

“Here, homosexuality is like you have killed someone,’’ she said.

American gay activists have sent money to help the community here. Western governments — including aid donors — have vocally criticized the bill and denounced the treatment of gays.

That has angered conservative pastors here, many of whom are influenced by American antigay Christian groups and politicians who say African values are under attack by Western attitudes. They say their goal is to change the sexual behavior of gays, not to physically harm them.

“In Uganda, we look at homosexuality as an abomination. It is not normal,’’ said Nsaba Butoro, Uganda’s minister on ethics and integrity and a vocal supporter of the bill. “You are talking about a clash of cultures. The question is: Which culture is superior, the African one or the Western one?’’

More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality. In May, a judge in Malawi imposed a maximum prison sentence of 14 years with hard labor on a gay couple convicted of “unnatural acts’’ for holding an engagement ceremony. Malawi’s president pardoned the couple after international condemnation, particularly from Britain, Malawi’s largest donor.

Gays have also been attacked this year in Zimbabwe, and in Senegal their graves have been desecrated. Gays in Cameroon have been attacked by police and targeted in the media. In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh has vowed to expel gays from the country and urged citizens not to rent homes to them.

Late last month, Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya declared that gay people discovered having sex should be arrested. He later backtracked after his comments drew widespread anger from human rights groups.

A survey by the Forum on Religion and Public Life released in April found that 79 percent of Ugandans consider “homosexual behavior morally wrong,’’ with even higher percentages in several other African countries.

One exception is South Africa, whose constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and is among a few countries in the world that have legalized same-sex marriages. Still, even there, negative attitudes toward gays persist in many rural areas and townships.

Mbaru’s organization has seen a 10 percent increase in reported attacks against gays in Africa in the past year, she said. According to Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, more than 20 gay people have been attacked over the past year here. An additional 17 have been arrested and imprisoned.

In recent years, conservative American evangelical churches have had a profound influence on society in Uganda and other African nations. They send missions and help fund local churches that share their brand of Christianity. Sermons and seminars by American evangelist preachers are staples on local television and radio networks across the continent. top stories on Twitter

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